Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Source of Rights

Stephan Kinsella of Mises Economics Blog, in a pugnacious and meandering post, finally gets around to naming the source of rights, as he sees it. That source is empathy, which is:

1. Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives. See Synonyms at pity.
2. The attribution of one's own feelings to an object.

Empathy has something to do with it. But my view is that rights arise from self-interest, best expressed as the Golden Rule:

The Golden Rule implies empathy; that is, the validity of the Golden Rule hinges on the view that others have the same feelings as oneself. But the Golden Rule also encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me. (There's the self-interest.) The exceptions usually are dealt with by codifying the myriad instances of the Golden Rule (e.g., do not steal, do not kill) and then enforcing those instances through communal action (i.e., justice and defense).

The lesson here is three-fold:

  • Rights are "natural," but not in the sense that they are somehow innate in humans. Rather, rights are natural in the sense that they arise from a nearly universal sense of empathy and an experiential belief in the value of mutual forbearance.
  • Those "natural rights" have no force or effect unless they are generally recognized and enforced through communal action.
  • Rights may therefore vary from place to place and time to time, according to the mores of the community in which they are recognized and enforced.

Related posts:
The Origin and Essence of Rights
More about the Origin of Rights
A Footnote to My Theory of Rights
Rights and the State
The Meaning of Liberty